The Longest Day

Trip Start Apr 10, 2008
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Trip End May 12, 2008


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Flag of Burundi  ,
Monday, April 28, 2008

Today was one of those "longest day" kinds of days.  Saturday evening, I found a glitch in my Outlook program. At least it's worked like a glitch for me. I have all my flight information, times, hotel confirmation codes etc. in my Outlook calendar before I leave home, so that it will all synch to my Treo. That way I have all my information on my hip all the time. It appears however that when I changed time zones to Europe from the US, Outlook shifted all my appointments (including flight times) by six hours, the number of time zones I changed when flying across the ocean. For the last two weeks I had the flight leaving from Paris as 11:15 am in both my laptop and my treo. Actually it was 5:15 pm. So I didn't have to be in as much a rush as I thought I did. It's better find out one has more time rather less than was planned, but it's best to know exactly how much time one has.
 
So Saturday night I didn't drive all the way to Paris as I planned. Instead I stopped in Chalon-sur-Saone, in the heart of Burgundy.  Yesterday, Sunday I had about three more hours to drive to get to the airport. I left the hotel about 11:00 am, and drove to the north side of Paris, where Charles de Gaulle airport is located. I dropped off the rental car and made my way to terminal B where I checked in with British Airways for the second leg of the trip: the flight to London, Heathrow. I found I would be arriving in terminal 5, the brand new one that was causing such headaches two weeks ago. Hundreds of flights were late or cancelled, and something like 10,000 suitcases were temporarily lost. I hoped my suitcase would make it through all the legs of this trip, but it seemed the first one might be the highest hurdle. With optimism (and a little prayer) I checked my suitcase all the way to Bujumbura anyway. The flight left on time and went without incident.
 
I continued reading Saving the Queen the first in a series of spy novels by William F. Buckley Jr., who just recently died. I was an admirer of his, and his death stimulated me to learn more about him, so along with the non-fiction books I bought, I thought I'd try one of his pretty successful fiction books as well. It's actually quite good. It has an interesting plot, attractive characters, is intelligently written, and has a more advanced vocabulary than one usually finds in that genre; typical of Buckley.
 
The air was quite turbulent on landing at Heathrow, but I've noticed that it almost always is. There must be some kind of micro-weather system west of London that makes for high winds.
 
I had a little more than two hours to make the connection and that turned out to be enough. Terminal 5 is a huge modern structure about 10 stories high (I'm estimating) sitting by itself, several miles away from the other terminals; it took fifteen or twenty minutes, without any stops, for the shuttle bus to drive to terminal 4. This terminal was familiar, I used to fly in and out of it six or eight times a year when I flew American and British more than Delta and Air France like I do now. I had time for a wonderfully smooth pint of Guinness before catching my next flight: Kenya Airways flight 101 to Nairobi. The Boeing 777 pushed back at 8:00 pm for the eight-hour flight. It takes about two hours to finish the dinner service, the crew wakes everyone about 90 minutes before landing, and our flight landed more than 30 minutes early, so all told I was about to sleep about 3 hours. We arrived before 6:00 am this morning in Nairobi and shuffled, bleary-eyed, off the plane.
 
My next Kenya Airways flight, to Bujumbura, Burundi was supposed to leave at 10:40 am. So I had about four and half hours to wait. I trolled through the duty free shops - and found nothing new. There was time to enjoy a cup of strong, rich Kenyan coffee and a spicy, curried vegetable pastry that is popular in Kenya. Out the windows, I observed the chaotic way the luggage was unloaded and transferred; it was all just laid out on the tarmac and grouped. I wondered where mine was in all that, if it was there at all.
 
Boarding time was to be about 10:00 am, but the flight was delayed until 11:00, so things were pushed back twenty minutes. A plane-full of us were sweating in the departure lounge (there is no discernable air conditioning in Jomo Kenyatta airport, and most of the windows aren't made to open) at 10:30 waiting to board when we were informed the flight was delayed now until 1:00 pm.  I left the lounge and went for more coffee to help me try to stay awake. When I came back to the lounge, some passengers were sprawled out on the carpet sleeping.
 
Finally after what had become a seven-hour layover, the flight did leave. Part of the delay, I found from the passenger sitting next to me, was due to a change in planes, there had been a cancellation the day before, and many passengers had spent an unexpected night in Nairobi, so they brought out a 777 which could hold everyone going to Kigali via Bujumbura.
 
The man next to me was a Belgian (from the Dutch-speaking Flemish region) agricultural expert working with grants from the Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation to improve crop yields in Africa. He's been living in Nairobi for the last seven years. The main agricultural need, he told me was better fertilization. The Clinton Foundation, hmm, a quip came to my mind about certain American politicians facilitating the production of a particular kind of fertilizer, but I decided to keep it to myself....
 
He asked what I did, and I told him I worked for a Church. He backed off a little and I felt a sense of disapproval. Christian charities don't always have a good reputation in the developing world. I think that stems from the idea that some Christian groups want something in return for their charity: they want conversions, or church attendance or "saved souls." Secular charities are sometimes suspicious of that, and feel like there shouldn't be any attempt at any kind of "return" for help given. That's not what we do anyway, so it wouldn't apply to our work, but it's a long story, and I didn't feel like starting that long explanation. Since humanism has become the religion of the West, aid projects have become a sort of atheistic deity - a god for those who have no God - served for no other, higher, purpose.  
 
I just carried on the conversation and he eventually warmed back up to our discussion. 
 
He also has worked and works in many countries in Africa, so we compared notes about airports, dictatorships, working conditions, hotels, and the love-hate relationship most expatriates have with Africa. We also talked about the Belgian constitutional crisis which occurred over the past months. There was some fairly serious talk about little Belgium splitting up into two smaller nations, one French-speaking, the other Flemish.
 
"In a few years it won't matter anyway" he told me. "Europe is uniting" he went on "we'll soon just be a small region in a much larger conglomeration - our differences and disputes won't matter." I found that mentality interesting; the European ideal is certainly making positive inroads with some people.  One can observe the iron is mixing with clay, to use the Biblical analogy.
 
He went on to share another observation: "Our little crisis also shows that you get along quite well without a government. We didn't have a government for months, and things went along just fine; you only need the perception of a government, and people will work things out. So if you don't like Obama or whoever you get in America in the next elections, don't worry, just keep on as if he isn't there and things will be OK."
 
We went on to talk about East Africa: the recent troubles in Kenya, the rising tensions in Rwanda (there were several bombs set off in Kigali recently), and the continuing tension in Burundi. I learned about some recent developments in Burundi that hadn't occurred before I left almost three weeks ago now. He mentioned that there had been fighting in north-western Burundi. I wondered to myself how close that was to Cibitoke province, that's where I needed to go. "In which province was that?" I asked. "It's happening in Cibitoke province" he told me "there's been quite a bit of trouble there with rebel groups. That didn't sound very promising.
 
"And then" he said "the rebels have been shelling even Bujumbura." That sounded even less promising. The government made some promises in their negotiations with the rebels it hasn't kept the promises, so the rebels groups are putting pressure on the government. "It makes you wonder about democracy in Africa" he said. "They don't have a real democracy in Rwanda, but they pretty much have peace. They have a democracy in Burundi, but they can't reach peace."  I don't share his opinion about democracy in Rwanda - he feels that most power is concentrated in the hands of Tutsis who came from exile in English-speaking Tanzania and Uganda (as opposed to Tutsis who were exiled in French-speaking Congo, Tutsis who survived the genocide in the country, and Hutus in general) and that means there is no democracy. It's true that most important posts are occupied by people with an Anglophone background, but by all indications they have been democratically elected. He does believe though, as do I, that the current government officials in Rwanda are really trying to help their countrymen and not just enrich themselves as is so often the miserable case in Africa.
 
 
I decided I would check again with the US embassy in "Buj" before venturing out, and I wanted to know more about the shelling of the capital city.  When we landed in Bujumbura, my interesting neighbor was surprised when I stood up. "You're staying here?" he asked. I answered affirmatively, and wished him a good trip. He wished me good luck. I noticed that there weren't many whites getting off the plane, which made me wonder a bit more about the situation on the ground. Would I be landing like Hillary Clinton, or under sniper fire?
 
It was reassuring to see a number of westerners waiting for passengers in the small terminal. Everyone was smiling and laughing. There was no tension, so I relaxed a bit too. I wasn't really nervous, just curious and alert.
 
The immigration official, on the other hand, didn't seem too alert. She looked through my passport, didn't find the current visa, but did find the old single-entry visa I had used in February. It was out of date and had been already used, but she put the entry stamp next to it and signed it anyway. I guess I could have saved $100. Or maybe she's hoping to get some money on my way out when she "assists" me after "discovering" that I entered the country without a valid visa....  We'll see in a few days.
 
To my relief and delight, my suitcase arrived at the same time I did! I'm thankful for small miracles, or perhaps that was a large miracle....
 
Mose Ntigirinzigo and Nathan Mokeshimana where just outside the arrival area to greet me. Mose wife had come along as well, which was a kind gesture. We talked as we drove into town in the taxi. I asked about the church members in the area. "Everyone is doing well, although we don't have news of the members in Bujumbura Rural province," they told me pointing the mountains just beyond the city, "because there has been a great deal of unrest there."
 
"What about Cibitoke?" I asked. "There was trouble there last week, but it is over now, and everyone is waiting for your visit."
 
"I heard there was shelling in Bujumbura?"
"Only a little, last week, it's over now. There is no problem. Everyone is waiting for your visit, tomorrow."
 
As we arrived in the city, I saw soldiers everywhere. Security had definitely been reinforced. There were even several squads of soldiers with AK-47s at the entrance to the Novotel and several in the lobby.
 
 
When I checked in, the porter remembered me from two months ago. I must have tipped him well.  As soon as I got to the room, I called the US embassy and asked for the security officer. He took the call right away. He told me there is an ongoing security sweep being conducted by government troops in Cibitoke Province. There are two roads leading there, he said, neither are secure, even during daylight hours. He said they knew the precise locations where there had been gun battles, but they didn't give them out because they didn't want to give a false sense of security. They could break out anywhere, at any time.
 
He sounded a lot more serious about this than when I called in February, when I finally decided to make the trip north. Embassy personnel are not currently allowed to go there, and the Embassy strongly warns US citizens not to go.
 
I asked about shelling in Bujumbura. It has happened three times. The rebels fire 135mm rockets into town. They can land anywhere; the targeting does not appear precise. The most recent occurrence was a few days ago. There wasn't much more to be said about that.
 
He took down my name and asked where I was staying and for how long. This was also new since February, and I knew from the past that this represented a new security level. I thanked him and hung up, then went back downstairs to Mose and Nathan. I knew they would be disappointed, and they were. They had organized a special church service for today, Tuesday. They had made the trip and nothing had happened, it would be OK, they assured me. Neither the rebels nor the government troops target civilians.
 
I apologized and said that I understood it seemed unnecessary to them, but that the situation wasn't exactly the same for foreigners. If the rebels wanted to put pressure on the government, which, it seems, is what this is all about, targeting westerners would be an effective way of doing that.
 
So I proposed that I meet with several of their church leaders here in Bujumbura, and that we continue our discussions of doctrine and administration, as we get to know each other better. They said they needed to go back north to explain in person why we wouldn't be having the service. "These are simple people" Nathan said with concern "mostly farmers who don't know much about the world, we don't want to discourage them, so we need to go explain in person." "But," Mose added, "this would mean leaving you alone here for most of the day, is that alright?" I assured them it was fine, that I understood, and that I approved of their concern for the church members.  They told me they would be back tomorrow about 4:00 with a few other church leaders to continue our discussions.
 
By that time, I had been going over 30 hours on 3 hours sleep, so I was struggling a little.  We talked a while longer about plans and things we need to discuss, then they left.

I had a wonderful shower, and changed, then had an early dinner at about 5:00 and plan to turn in early. One more unusual thing happened during dinner. I was pecked by accident by one of the beautiful crowned cranes that live in the gardens of the Novotel. One of them became interested when my beef brochettes and french fries arrived. He hung around like he wanted a handout. These birds are about three feet tall with two inch beaks and they are the most beautiful birds I have ever seen. I couldn't resist. I held out a french fry and with a very quick jab, as if he was going for a lizard that might get away (I don't actually know if they eat lizards but that was my impression) he grabbed the fry and swallowed it the way a pelican swallows whole fish. This was fun.
 
I held out another fry. Apparently it was difficult to determine where the fry ended and my digits began, because this time the lightning jab hit my unsuspecting finger. I'm pretty sure it wasn't on purpose, though he didn't pinch the finger, just poked it hard. I dropped the fry in surprise, and the crane went for it on the ground. I gave him one more, but that one I threw over to him so he wouldn't have to go for it like a predator....
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Comments

maryhendren
maryhendren on

Hello
Hi Joel,

Glad to hear you had a safe, though long trip to Burundi, and that your suitcase arrived. Interesting conversation and comments by your seat mate--the uniting of Europe and how to operate with a 'perceived government.' It must have been memorable to feed the crowned crane and to come up with the 'dropped fry' technique. Hope your meetings go well.

Regards,
Mary

danielandcindy
danielandcindy on

What a day!
It's good to see that you and your luggage arrived safely. I'm sorry to hear that services didn't work out. That must have been disappointing for everyone. Hopefully things will stabilize there, for your sake and the sake of the people living there. You are in our prayers for a safe and productive trip!

fmeeker
fmeeker on

hey dad!
Well, sounds like you had quite a day!! I'm so sorry things didn't work out for you, but at least you were able to see a few of the brethren there. And I'm glad you're taking precautions, we all want you back home in one peice!! I love you lots and miss you tons!!

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